Why Is It So Hard to Motivate Kids with ADHD?

Traditional motivational techniques — namely, rewards and consequences — don’t work for children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). This truth we hold to be self-evident. But why is it so? ADHD brains differ from neurotypical ones in a few important ways that impact motivation:

  • The parts of the brain that manage executive functions and emotions have different levels of activity.
  • Electrical activity differences make it harder for ADHD brains to filter out irrelevant stimuli, and focus on the task at hand.
  • ADHD is linked to low dopamine activity, which impacts desire — and reactions to rewards, success, and failure.

These differences mean that kids with ADHD have to work harder to acquire information and pay attention. That can mean kids with ADHD experience more frustration and failure than they do success, which negatively affects self-perception and increases stress – only further paralyzing the brain. A child’s negative perceptions about his or her ability to complete a task may become a barrier to getting started — and result in less efficient processing because all that stress makes the brain shut down.

Therefore, kids with ADHD require a different approach to process stimulation, jump-start motivation, and manage the emotional effects of their challenges. Not because of an attitude problem – but because of their neurobiology. Some people with ADHD can independently address and overcome their challenges. But for most children, it takes guidance, education, and practice. In order for a student with ADHD to successfully tap into his motivation, he must have or develop self-awareness and self-advocacy. 

How to Help Your Child “Fix” Motivational Problems

  1. Help your child develop new skills. Give your child the opportunity to acquire and use metacognitive strategies that can help her override disorganization and distraction — and improve executive functioning. She wants to be able to say, “I am working on this, and I am improving because of the effort I put into it.” Help her get there.
  2. Find a mentor or coach — as in sports, or acting, or just about any skill — most people don’t become proficient on their own. This coach could be a parent, teacher, or counsellor, any adult the child trusts.
  3. Teach the value of honest self-appraisal, and how to accept and use feedback from other people. Compare your child’s current performance and use of skills to his previous efforts. Then, help him use the skills he’s learned in the past to propel him further in the future. One of the simplest things we can do is ask our kids to rate the difficulty of the task being put before them on a scale of one to five – one being really easy, and five being really hard. Second, you should ask, “How capable are you of doing this task?” After helping your student complete the task, ask him to rate it again.
  4. Find a community of support for students, a group of others (of different ages) working on the same life goal – in person or online.
  5. Log accomplishments. The brain wants to avoid failure, but it finds success addictive. So, keep a record of “wins” for your child (like the ribbons and trophies on the wall of an athlete). That’s part of what keeps people going. If a child doesn’t have a lot of trophies; let’s think of how to turn that around.
  6. Focus on process, not product. The former will lead to the improvement of the other.
  7. Cultivate a growth mindset – I can and I will vs. I can’t so I won’t.” Get your child to externalize what her brain is saying to her at the beginning of the task, and see if you can help her change that message at least for that task.
  8. Build in many opportunities to experience the joy (and the good “brain juice”) that comes from success in an area of strength (sports, music, theatre, electronics, dance, lyrics, poetry, et al). Let your child do the things that he does well. It will build good brain chemistry, which in turn makes his brain more ready and able to take on challenges.

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